A painter, a graphic artist, a woodcutter, a scientist and humanist
Albrecht Dürer was born in Nuremberg on 21 May 1471, a third child in the family of a well-known Nuremberg goldsmith Albrecht Dürer the Elder. After graduating from a Latin school in 1484, the 13-year-old boy started to work in his father’s workshop as an apprentice, learning the trade of goldsmith and acquiring artistic skill. It was with regret that his father parted with Albrecht for three years, sending him to Michael Wolgemut, the most famous painter, illustrator and engraver in Nuremberg. In 1486–1489, in Wolgemut’s workshop, Albrecht not only studied painting, but acquired the skill of wood engraving. He probably took part in illustrating the Hartmann Schedel’s World Chronicle.
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In 1490, the young artist followed the custom of that time and went travelling through German lands, visiting the towns of Germany and Switzerland. There is evidence of his coming to Colmar, Basel and Strasburg. It was during this period that he created his first woodcut, Saint Jerome in his study. In Basel he probably took part in illustrating Terence’s comedies, The Book of the Knight of the Tower, Sebastian Brant’s Narrenschiff. His first painted self-portrait dates from 1493.
In 1494, Dürer returned to Nuremberg and married Agnes Frey, the daughter of his father’s friend. Now that he was married, he could open his own workshop, but he preferred to go to Italy. His first journey to Italy, through Klausen (Chiusa) and Trient (Trento), took place in 1494–1495. On his way to Italy, he created a cycle of watercolour landscapes. He stopped in Venice, where he got to know the works of best Italian painters – Andrea Mantegna, Antonio del Pollaiolo and Giovanni Bellini. In 1495 he returned to Nuremberg, becoming an independent painter and engraver.
In 1498 he published a cycle of woodcuts named Apocalypse. It reflected the dominating attitude in Germany on the eve of great religious and social upheaval. A new graphic language, intelligible for general public, made the artist famous in Germany and in other countries. In the end of 1490s Dürer started to make copperplate engravings and became the first artist in Germany to use both techniques (woodcuts and copperplates), making them mutually complementary. Most of his woodcuts were dedicated to Bible stories. But Dürer did not forget about contemporary topics and mythology, and was interested in solving artistic problems. Since 1500, he undertook systematical and careful studies of the perspective, of human and animal proportions; he used his knowledge to construct figures (engravings Nemesis, Adam and Eve, The Large Horse and The Small Horse). During this time, he started his cycle Life of the Virgin.
In 1505–1507, Dürer went for the second time in Italy. One of his goals was to secure his copyright: such was Dürer’s popularity already in the beginning of 16th century that many Italian artists simply copied his woodcuts, adding their monograms. In 1507, he returned to Nuremberg. He received many commissions to paint portraits, pictures and great altar compositions. His first drafts of theoretical works date from this period.
First two decades of 16th century were Dürer’s most fruitful time. In 1507-1508 he created a set of copperplates Passion, in 1511 he made a second edition of Apocalypse, published the cycles of woodcuts Life of the Virgin, Large Passion, Small Passion. In 1513–1514 Dürer created his famous ‘master prints’: Knight, Death and the Devil, Saint Jerome in his Study and Melencolia I. From 1512 to 1519 he worked for the Emperor Maximilian I (drawings for The Triumphal Arch, The Triumphal Procession and Maximilian’s Prayer Book. In 1515–1518 Dürer tried another technique: he created six etchings.
In 1520–1521, Dürer went to the Netherlands through Bamberg, Frankfurt and Cologne. He stopped in Antwerp and Brussels, visited Bruges and Ghent. He admired the Dutch paintings. The journey was very important for Dürer because after the death of Maximilian I, he had to get from his successor, Charles V, the confirmation of the privileges bestowed upon him by the late Emperor. Dürer was present at Charles’s coronation in Aachen. Later, in Cologne, he met the new Emperor and his pension was confirmed. During his trip, Dürer kept a diary, which permits to reconstitute his itinerary, learn about his meetings with famous people and painters, about the moments when he saw something rare or extraordinary. In the Netherlands, he met Erasmus of Rotterdam. But during this journey Dürer caught an unknown ‘amazing’ illness (probably malaria) that tormented him for the rest of his life. Later he will die because of that it.
In 1521, he returned to Nuremberg. In 1524–1526 he created a cycle of portraits on copperplates. These are depictions of the most well-known German political and religious figures as well as famous humanists. During these years, besides painting and engraving, Dürer worked on his theoretical books. He published two major treatises in his last years of life: Instructions for Measuring with Compass and Ruler and Instruction on the Fortification of Cities, Castles and Towns. In 1528, he finished his Four Books on Human Proportion which were published posthumously.
Albrecht Dürer died on 6 April 1528.
Circa 1496 – 1497
Sheet 7 from the series “The Apocalypse”